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A complex peace in Myanmar

As > Myanmar rushes to its date with democratic and electoral destiny on November 8, one of the key challenges that will face a new government is the shaping of peace with major ethnic groups that have stayed away from a ‘nationwide’ ceasefire agreement — or CFA as it is widely known — with the current reformist, military-led regime.



Sanjoy Hazarika
The complexity of the Myanmar elections and the national Constitution represent significant hurdles in moving forward from the October 15 agreement that involved eight ethnic groups but did not include some of the powerful armies that have for decades run their own parallel governments along the China-Myannmar border and, at times, fought the Myanmar army virtually to a standstill. These > include the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) with an army of not less than 10,000 soldiers. under its command and has been battling sporadically with Myanmar government forces especially these past two years when the ceasefire process has been a work in slow, at times shaky but definite progress. Other groups incude the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, the Arakan Army and the Myanmar State National Democratic Army.

The groups which have signed the CFA are no less influential and powerful such as the Karen National Union, among the first to take up arms against Yangon and , in the initial years of the civil war that broke out soon after independence, seize large tracts. But life is complicated as evidenced by conditions across the border in the North East of India, a region that is at least as complex as Myanmar. Yet, the North-east — which is on Myanmar’s North-west, does not appear to be much on the radar of the Myanmar government. Nor, from conversations with senior political leaders, scholars and officials, does it apparently regard this region which has seen the birth and growth and decline of numerous insurgencies, several of which have been and remain based in Myanmar, a priority for the central government. The need to deal with ceasefire groups now is seen almost as a separate issue. For decades, the battle-hardened Myanmar army has fought various groups on its side of the border, with varying degrees of success. Under different army regimes, it has also >initiated peace processes that enabled specific groups to come to a standstill agreement or what on the Indian side is called a COO or Cessation of Operations. But the Myanmar government did not really function in many of these areas, except in townships at the district, state and regional headquarters and in miltiary operations when required. The ethnic groups have long complained of extensive human rights violations by the army, charges which the latter has consistently denied.

Yet despite the agreements, the complexities grow. There are two levels of negotiations with the government. The ‘ >National Ceasefire Agreement’ of October covers eight groups. There are at least six others which already have bilateral agreements with the Central Government, which enables them to retain their armies, arms and their control of specific areas. The largest fighting force of the ‘bilaterals’ is the United Wa State Liberation Army, said to have extensive contacts not just with China but also major international drug and arms smuggling networks. The Wa army has some 20,000 well-armed, and entrenched troops.

Among the groups which have been active on either side of the border for 35 years is the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) in its undivided form from 1980 till the 1988 split, which saw Naga turning against Naga and the division which exploded between the Khaplang and Isak-Muivah factions. The NSCN of Khaplang signed a ceasefire with Yangon in 2013 and has an estimated 4,000 cadres and troops. Yangon’s atttitude to Khaplang is laid back, and the recent attack on his camp by Indian commandos hardly drew a response from the Myanmar government except for an official to say at the time that an incident took place along the border, underplaying Indian statements of hot pursuit. Like any country, Myanmar is very sensitive on issues of territorial sovereignty and this point was made clear to Indian officials. And unlike the hysterical Indian media reports, which imaginatively spoke of a toll ranging from 40-110, apparently barely seven casualties were inflicted on the insurgents.

Meanwhile, several of the Northeast’s fractured factions continue to be based in the terrain around Khaplang's headquarters, under his apparent patronage, and have formed a united front, including the United Liberation Front of Asom (Independent), led by Paresh Baruah. Baruah has rejected calls from New Delhi for discussions and even an offer of safe passage to see his ailing mother by Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi.

What is important to undertand is the difference in perceptions between Indian and Myanmarese officials. While the Indian government has banned the Khaplang group and put a price on his head and that of his army chief, following the attack on the army in Manipur last June, what is > often missed is that Khaplang is a Myanmar national. Can the Government of India negotiate with a foreigner? He lives in the Naga-dominated Taga Semi-Autonomous Region, has not visited India despite having a ceasefire with New Delhi for 17 years (he wasn't invited since at the insistence of his rivals Muivah and Swu, who repeatedly threatened to walk out of talks if he or his group were invitedcalled for negotiations), is a Hemi Naga and a traditional tribal ang or chief. He and the smaller North-eastern factions are not seen as a threat to Yangon and its policies. There is no extradition treaty between the two sides.

Khaplang even has come to Yangon for medical treatment at a government hospital. He was given more political space and greater autonomy while his group held talks with the main negotiators of the current regime after the army approved democratic reforms and released their 50-year-old grip on the country. The principal opposition leader Aung Sang Suu Kyi was freed from years of house detention after a former general Thien Sein, became President and pushed a pro-reforms, pro-democracy policy, enabling the fresh winds of freedom to blow across the country and which are leading to the November 8 general election.

Outside the agreements

However, any government will have to deal with the formidable group of non-negotiators, including the powerful militias of the KIO, which still face attacks from the Myanmar army.

The KIO’s army has suffered reverses in a burst of fighting over the past year, which has taken a toll of cadres and civilians. Others who are not negotiating accuse the government of insincerity and continuing the assaults on the Kachins at a time when it was cobbling together the CFA. It is significant that all this is happening on Myanmar’s western border and a government negotiator once even accused Beijing of pressuring the Kachins and others not to join the CFA. Within a few days, however, he withdrew the remarks. It is not without significance that China was the only country that Myanmar agreed to have as an observer at all rounds of the ceasefire negotiations; it tells us an extraordinary story of that country’s continuing influence.

Those who have signed have agreed to a major clause — a commitment to Myanmar’s territorial integrity. They were allowed to retain their weapons and given three months to explain the terms and conditions to their cadres and then return for further talks with the government.

In the interim , Myanmar will have elected a new government although a new President will not be in the saddle till March 2016.The army controls 25 per cent of the vote under the Constitution, while the ethnic regions technically are supposed to have another 40 per cent. The National League for Democracy (NLD), banking on the charisma and popularity of its principal campaigner, >Aung San Suu Kyi, is expected to emerge as the largest single party. Should her party come to power how Suu Kyi will review and shape the negotiations with the CFA groups is not clear. The question is whether she would want a review of the existing agreement or seek to expand it to include the hold-out militant groups, who may be happier to deal with a ‘civilian’ government, than a quasi-military regime of the Union Solidarity and Democratic Party (USDP), which comprises largely of former military officers and followers of the earlier regime.

An issue that has not figured in the elections is that a large number of Muslims, in the western Arakan region and across the country, including the cultural capital of Mandalay, have been disenfranchised, even those who voted in the 2010 elections. They've been told to enter Indian or Chinese as their race, while some of them trace their ancestry in Myanmar for hundreds of years and are supporters of both the NLD and the pro-army ruling party. There is reported to be both anger and deep sadness in the community, especially in the wake of the anti-Muslim riots two years ago, and the growth of a radical Buddhist nationalist movement.

Despite the intricate process, India has much to from the Myanmar experience of dealing with insurgents. Even if it is an incomplete peace, the process has been reported upon and undertaken with a great deal of transparency, unlike what has been happening between New Delhi and various armed groups for as long as one can remember. The Myanmar negotiators, with little experience of the process, started an effort about 20 months back, and achieved a substantial goal. India has negotiated with the NSCN (I-M) for 18 years and is yet to come to any sort of complete and public agreement, despite the ‘framework’ deal that was signed on August 3; even that remains a closely guarded secret, for reasons that remain unclear.

(Sanjoy Hazarika is Director of the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research at Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi. A longer version of this article is available online at www.thehindu.com.)


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Printable version | Jul 31, 2021 3:38:08 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/a-complex-peace-in-myanmar/article7846996.ece

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